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National Drug Policy Director Meets with Newtown Group

National Drug Policy Director, R. Gil Kerlikowske, reflects on his recent trip to Newtown, where he met with a drug free communities coalition dedicated to reducing substance abuse.

Newtown. Today, the name of the town itself immediately conjures many images and emotions for people throughout our country. After visiting Newtown myself yesterday I am left with the memory of two words specifically -- perseverance and character.

I was privileged to visit the Newtown Prevention Council, a drug free communities coalition dedicated to reducing substance abuse in Newtown, Connecticut. The Council has been in existence since 1986 and seeks to help young people and families make decisions in support of healthy and substance-free lifestyles. But as with all prevention focused coalitions they also strengthen family and build resiliency and self-reliance for a community.

I asked them if the presence of their Coalition had helped them since the tragedy that rocked their community on December 14. To a person, they agreed it had. Coalition members include faith leaders, the chief of the Newtown police department, public and private school principals, counselors, health care professionals including a school nurse and emergency room doctor, high school students and several other community members.

In the face of unspeakable tragedy, the strength of this community has come through. Community members and members of this coalition support one another and cultivate the core characteristics of a town that will be known not just for the tragedy it has been through but for its resilience and character. The community coalition has done great work in Newtown to reduce underage drinking and substance use. Using evidence based techniques they work to give parents and young people the tools they need to lead healthy lives. And they build trusting relationships among the participants, relationships that pay huge dividends when tragedy strikes.

A few years ago, the Newtown community came together to develop its “character tree." The basic elements or limbs of the character tree are caring, citizenship, trustworthiness, respect, and responsibility. These characteristics exemplify what has helped them come together in the wake of the devastation at Sandy Hook Elementary to gain strength and look for solutions.

A key element of the character tree is caring – being empathetic, expressing compassion, kindness and forgiveness. The people of Newtown deserve our empathy. But they also deserve our respect for how they have gained strength as a community and for their perseverance and character.